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Serge and Destroy

What the shocking Ibaka–Victor Oladipo trade means for the Thunder, the Magic, and Kevin Durant

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Getty Images

With religious Sam Hinkie posters peppering the Barclays crowd, Danny Ainge taking up the mantle as Lord of Assets, and the Phoenix Suns swinging for two of the youngest, most unknowable prospects on anyone’s board, the 2016 NBA draft was supposed to be a night for mapping distant futures.

But we were reminded early on that it hasn’t yet been a week since one of the most incredible upsets in NBA Finals history. And while it might have been a night for mapping out the future, the present has ruptured. The 2016 Golden State Warriors will not be considered the greatest team of all time; the Warriors’ conceivable dynasty is penetrable, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were only one game shy of meeting the eventual champs in their own Finals rematch with LeBron, had to make a move.

The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported last night that the Thunder have agreed to trade Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the rights to Domantas Sabonis, the no. 11 pick in the draft. In the immediate afterglow, here’s what’s at stake.

What This Means for the Thunder

Ibaka has seen a statistical regression for the past two seasons, though his dissolving significance to the team hadn’t reached its nadir until the final three games of the Thunder’s second-round playoff matching against the Spurs last season, averaging 6.7 points in those games, and logging under 30 minutes in two of them. He had been overshadowed by the duo of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, who unexpectedly beat the aging Spurs frontline senseless on the offensive glass. Ibaka, who had long been the crest of Oklahoma City’s defensive identity, saw that honor shift to Adams this season. Ibaka’s ongoing drift further away from the basket was a matter of assuming a necessary role in the Thunder’s schemes, but it played out like a sad physical metaphor. Those who know Ibaka well have claimed he’s expressed resentment toward his marginalization, and it’s hard to blame him. The modern archetype of his position can’t find a larger place on a championship contender? The frustrations clearly mounted into a tension that the Thunder organization couldn’t ignore.

At the very least, the Thunder were able to obtain a haul for a player who would likely have left the team next season anyway. Oladipo is the marquee name, and it wasn’t too long ago that his explosiveness was being compared to Westbrook’s. Oladipo ostensibly takes over for the incumbent Dion Waiters, who will most likely watch as another team washes up upon his shore. The two share a similar profile, both being 6-foot-4 with extremely long arms, but Oladipo comes with a built-in defensive motor. Billy Donovan was able to unlock the secret to defensive commitment from Waiters in the postseason, a marked shift from the regular season, when he was often one of the biggest liabilities on the team. It’s intoxicating to imagine what Donovan could get out of Oladipo, who is already one of the better pick-and-roll defenders in the league at his position. Activity is often confused with productivity when it comes to defense, but Oladipo passes the eye test either way; he’s become quite good at navigating screens to deny separation from his man. The real question with Oladipo lies in just how much he’s improved as a perimeter shooter. His 3-point percentages have increased incrementally over his first three seasons, resting at the end of last season at just a tick under 35 percent, around league average. The thing is, Oladipo shot 27 percent from 3 on nearly four attempts through the first 25 games of last season. After the start of 2016, Oladipo’s percentage rose to 39.3 percent.

Sabonis is nice from a value perspective, but as an aggressive, post-oriented big man with below-average measurables, he doesn’t offer anything that Enes Kanter or Mitch McGary don’t already provide. Ilyasova might provide a different look at the 4 spot as a 3-point specialist and solid rebounder in his own right. Thunder GM Sam Presti said on Thursday night that he intends to keep Ilyasova. Or he could be waived before the month is over. His contract guarantees only $400,000 if he’s waived on or before July 1. Otherwise, the Thunder will be on the books for $8.4 million in the final year of his contract.

The last time Oklahoma City shipped off a foundational player, it was framed as an act of financial prudence; the team wouldn’t have been able to afford keeping both James Harden and Ibaka at the price tags their talent merited. The Thunder made their choice, and it was Ibaka. They have since entered a feedback loop. Nearly four years after the Harden trade, the Thunder are moving on from the player they chose over Harden to invest in Adams, the one jewel to emerge from the Harden trade.

But the Harden trade took place in a moment the Thunder will never be able to reclaim, as long as Kevin Durant and Westbrook remain their franchise cornerstones. Durant was 24 then, and Westbrook was 23. The deal didn’t bring about the dissolution of an era; all it did was change the timetable. Last night’s trade was reportedly made independent of Durant’s looming free-agency decision. This group could have only one more shot — Westbrook will likely test free agency immediately after next season. And that isn’t even the worst-case scenario.

In a vacuum, this trade will be determined by just how much the Thunder are affected by losing Ibaka’s roving presence on both ends of the floor. His star may have faded to new lows during the playoffs, but looking at net rating for the entire postseason, Ibaka had the highest figure of any Thunder player who logged more than 10 minutes. He had the highest net rating in the Warriors series of anyone who played more than six minutes. His impact may not have been as heavily felt in the stat sheet, but there is no replacing the kind of spacing and rim protection he consistently provided. Durant’s ability to guard Draymond Green in the Western Conference finals was inspiring, but there’s a difference between doing it for an isolated series and keeping that up for an entire season. I think this ultimately hurts the Thunder in the short term, though we won’t be able to crown a winner for this trade until we’ve uncovered the fate of Durant and Westbrook.

What This Means for the Magic

Orlando took a page out of the Charlotte Hornets’ playbook and just went for it. A draft-day trade between the Hornets and Blazers last year sent Nicolas Batum to Charlotte and Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh to Portland. It paid off for Batum; not only did he add several dimensions to a strangely fun Hornets squad, he revitalized his career there and really fucking enjoyed it!

Obviously, the stakes are higher this time around. The Magic weren’t a player away from making a postseason return — they haven’t made the playoffs in four seasons and have consistently been at the bottom of their division. But adding a player of Ibaka’s caliber unseals a lot of latent potential hidden behind Scott Skiles’s spiritless reign last season. For once, Nikola Vucevic will be playing with an elite rim protector, the kind of player all centers who aren’t quite fleet of foot dream of partnering up with. Theoretically, Vucevic’s burden will be lessened with someone who can actually successfully hedge a pick-and-roll. The Magic frontcourt now also has the ability to pair Ibaka and Aaron Gordon on the frontline as hypermobile watchmen.

Unlike the Thunder, where pieces just fall into orbit, there is a great deal of projection that has to go into what the Magic will be capable of next season. New coach Frank Vogel proved in Indiana that he’s capable of adapting to different defensive schemes and personnel. In Ibaka, he gets a fully formed Myles Turner; in Gordon, he gets, well, whatever this gloriousness is:

Though, in my heart, I believe I’m burying the lede here: By jettisoning Oladipo to Western pastures, the Magic are now fully committed to Mario Hezonja, who likely would’ve been a top-two pick in this year’s draft. Vogel’s experience with Paul George should help him develop a confident swingman who was predictably buried under Skiles’s strict no-nonsense policy. There just aren’t many players at the wing with his size, athleticism, and natural shooting ability. He may not have George’s innate defensive sense, but I’m wary of calling Hezonja a lost cause on that end because of a coach who couldn’t be bothered to start at square one with a franchise cornerstone.

As you can tell, there’s a lot of projection on the Magic’s end. It’s a team full of unfinished products and still-hidden talents. We’ve never seen Serge Ibaka as anything more than a contingency no. 2 option; how will he react to the pressure of becoming more than just a cog in a machine? And how much can we attribute his sloping numbers to an actual decline?

The Magic won’t be a bottom-feeder next season, and if that was the goal, then this trade is a resounding success. But there are no guarantees that Ibaka’s rehabilitation in a different environment will yield the same kind of results that Batum got — which means the Magic could have gambled away a significant portion of their four-year rebuild for a one-year rental. It’s a dangerous kind of hope, but the Magic finally have a player who can make sense of their exciting but unstructured plan for the future. Ibaka, even in his own uncertainty, could be a lightning rod for Orlando’s volatile talents. That vague outline of legitimacy might be enough for now.